LINGUIST List 28.5269

Tue Dec 12 2017

Review: Applied Linguistics; Language Acquisition: MacIntyre, Gregersen (2017)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 15-Aug-2017
From: Roman Lesnov <>
Subject: Optimizing Language Learners’ Nonverbal Behavior
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Tammy Gregersen
AUTHOR: Peter MacIntyre
TITLE: Optimizing Language Learners’ Nonverbal Behavior
SUBTITLE: From Tenet to Technique
SERIES TITLE: Second Language Acquisition
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2017

REVIEWER: Roman Lesnov, Northern Arizona University

REVIEWS EDITOR: Helen Aristar-Dry


“Optimizing Language Learner’s Nonverbal Behavior. From Tenet to Technique” by Tammy Gregersen and Peter D. MacIntyre is a masterwork that successfully achieves three main goals. Firstly, it introduces the reader to the notion of nonverbal behavior by discussing the definition, teachability of, and trainability for nonverbal signals. Secondly, the book provides a classification of nonverbal signals followed by in-depth discussions of the majority of existing nonverbal code types. Finally, the authors present a collection of useful classroom techniques for developing second language learners’ competence in recognizing and employing nonverbal behavior in communicative situations. Thus, the book forms a unison of theory and practice pertaining to nonverbal behavior and its role in second language classrooms.

The structure of the book reflects its threefold purpose. The book consists of three main parts – Part 1. Introduction, Part 2. Codes, and Part 3. Activities. These three pillars are preceded by a foreword and a preface, and followed by a conclusion, references, an author index, and a subject index. The book’s foreword immediately captivates the reader by providing a brief historical overview of pedagogical approaches to second language teaching, with the role of nonverbal behavior situated within the evolution of those approaches. It sets the overall tenor of recognizing nonverbal signaling as an essential dimension of communication in any language. The preface defines the intended audience for the book and key definitions, and gently acquaints the reader with the book structure.

Part 1 starts off by discussing the power of nonverbal communication with the illustration of a gesture that made a life-and-death difference in people’s lives. The reader is further introduced to the links between verbal and nonverbal communication. Both types of communication are claimed to occur in both intrapersonal and interpersonal modes. According to the authors, the former is rarely accounted for in existing definitions of nonverbal behavior, which may diminish the theoretical value of the concept.

Both verbal and nonverbal types of communication are claimed to operate along the same three dimensions – communicative, affective, and cognitive dimensions. Respectively, nonverbal behavior is discussed in terms of its impact on the development of second language learners’ communicative, affective, and cognitive competencies. In the communicative realm, nonverbal cues can substitute, complement, accentuate, regulate, or contradict the verbal message. Each of these functions is briefly addressed and exemplified in Part 1. From the affective standpoint, nonverbal signals convey interlocutors’ emotions. Cognitively, nonverbal behavior is believed to be a facilitator of second language learners’ language comprehension and production. The discussion of the upsides of being a nonverbally savvy second language learner logically proceeds to the consideration of six challenges associated with the teaching of nonverbal behavior. These challenges include but are not limited to cultural specificity, learners’ differing abilities to decode and encode nonverbal signals, and individual variability of nonverbal behavior. To overcome those challenges, the authors offer a wide-ranging list of encoding and decoding teaching strategies.

Part 2 consists of five chapters, each of which is involved with a particular nonverbal code – gesture, posture, facial expression, eye behavior, space and touch, or prosody. The first chapter reviews existing definitions and classification schemes of gestures. The authors seem to favor Ekman and Freisen’s (1969) scheme of gestural cues for successful communication, which categorizes gestures into illustrators, regulators, emblems, and affect displays. Making use of this functional classification, the authors explain how gestural signals influence the communicative, affective, and cognitive dimensions of communication in a target language. The chapter is abundantly infused with respective references to classroom activities found in Part 3 of the book.

With respect to the communicative dimension, gestures are shown to facilitate learners’ sociolinguistic, discourse, strategic, and grammatical competencies. Regarding the sociolinguistic competency, particular attention is paid to the roles of culture-specific gestures, language-specific rhetorical styles, and context-specific situations in gesture use. In relation to discourse, gestures are described as turn-taking regulators and effective instruments for interaction construction. Strategically, gesture use is viewed as a compensator for a limited language ability. Lastly, the authors summarize the research into the potential of gestures to convey communicative intentions and improve listening comprehension.

Based on the research into the link between gestural behavior and affect, the authors show the effectiveness of gestures in rapport-building and communicating emotion. It is noted that gestures are especially instrumental in determining the strength of interlocutors’ emotion. In addition, the link between affect-related gestural functions and the zone-of-proximal-development theory (Vygotsky, 1987) is discussed. It is suggested that gestures promote target language output and, thus, activate the potential of learners’ linguistic development. On the other hand, the authors highlight that certain types of gestures, labeled as adaptors, may send negative emotional signals and hinder communication.

There are also several cognitive functions of gestural behavior that are discussed by the authors. They include increasing comprehension, promoting learning, enhancing internalization and memory in lexical acquisition as well as improving language production and self-regulation. Each of these functions is discussed in depth and shown to stem from current research findings.

The second chapter turns to the nonverbal code of posture. Unlike gestural behavior, postures are believed to be less ubiquitous in everyday communication and have limited communicative and cognitive functions. According to the authors, posture primarily influences the affective dimension of communication in a target language. Specifically, it is described as an indicator of both interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships, with the potential to display inclusiveness, congruence, openness, assertiveness, confidence, likeability, and power among interactants. It is noted that posture often works in concert with other kinesic cues to fulfill the aforementioned functions. Albeit less profuse, the contributions of postures to the communicative and cognitive functions are also discussed in the chapter, with respective references to the in-class activities found in Part 3 of the book.

The third chapter links facial expression to improved communicative and affective facets of interaction. The authors summarize the research showing strong links between facial expression and sociolinguistic, discourse, and strategic competencies. For example, facial expression may be considered a conversation facilitator if it indicates interactants’ willingness to take a turn. In addition, observing people’s faces can raise the interpretability of interlocutors’ emotional states. Potential emotional contradictions due to culture, power, or gender are discussed. The chapter hosts references to a number of instructional techniques related to the connection between facial expression and target language affect and communication.

The fourth chapter details the functions of eye behavior in target language communication. It is shown that gazing can perform a number of communicative functions, such as regulating the flow of conversations, establishing relationships, and commanding responses. On the affective side, the functions of eye contact include, among others, monitoring feedback, reflecting the level of intimacy of relationships, and establishing credibility. Eyes are also said to indicate the nature and degree of cognitive activity. The authors underscore that these functions normally operate conjunctively rather than occurring one at a time. The dependencies of these functions on context, culture, personality features, and gender are also addressed. The chapter refers to a range of communicative, affective, and cognitive teaching tools (in Part 3) for the aforementioned functions.

The themes of the fifth chapter are space (proxemics) and touch (haptics). Communicative and affective functions of both themes are reviewed. A proper use of space during a speech act is depicted as a culturally defined construct, capable of conveying affective and emotional signals among interactants. For example, proxemics is shown to designate social zones, including intimate, personal, social, and public zones, and determine the levels of affiliation and privacy. In turn, a proper use of touch can serve sociolinguistic purposes, fulfill discourse functions, and convey affect in a target language. Specifically, touch can communicate power and status, regulate turn-taking, and convey affection or aggression. The impact of demographic factors, culture, and context on the above-mentioned functions is given particular attention.

The sixth chapter of ‘Part 2: Codes’ explores how communicative, affective, and cognitive functions are carried out by prosody of speech. The chapter briefly outlines the definition and types of prosodic features, including such suprasegmental features as pauses, volume, intonation, stress, rhythm, rate, and voice quality. Communicatively, vocal cues are seen as promoters of grammatical, discourse, strategic, and sociocultural competencies. Speech rate and stress are shown to be particularly effective at marking thought groups and accentuating important information in the message. Affectively, prosody serves as an indicator of emotions, self-confidence, and interlocutors’ knowledge of the content of a conversation. Cognitively, prosodic features are believed to enhance listening comprehension and organize discourse. Each of these functions and many of their subfunctions are reviewed in detail and accompanied by references to corresponding blueprints of classroom activities in Part 3 of the book.

The book’s Part 3 is a collection of classroom techniques, or activities, aimed at teaching second learners to decode and encode nonverbal messages. The techniques are grouped according to the three functional dimensions of nonverbal signals, namely communicative (48 activities), affective (54 activities), and cognitive (27 activities). As mentioned earlier, each activity is briefly described and referred to in a respective portion of the text of Part 2 (Codes) whereas Part 3 features comprehensive descriptions of the activities. Activity descriptions include a statement of the activity’s objective, suggestions on targeted proficiency levels, thorough preparation instructions, and detailed procedures. Each activity comes with a matching quote, which motivates the reader to understand and employ the activity. Some of the techniques are accompanied by a video that visualizes the activity and often provides additional tips or related illustrations. Although the actors in the videos are not professionals, their illustrations are relevant and useful. The link to the video resources is provided in the note-for-readers section at the start of the book.


Unquestionably, Tammy Gregersen and Peter D. MacIntyre have succeeded in exposing the pivotal role and invaluable instructional usefulness of nonverbal cues in target language classrooms. The authors should take pride in the fact that their book is well-organized, reliable, and resourceful. First, the prose of the book is structured and logical, which greatly helps the reader to navigate in the world of copious nonverbal codes and their functions. Even though the “backbone” of the book may seem too branchy, the logic behind it helps to navigate the reader. Every branch of prose presents a detailed, in-depth account that effortlessly connects into the big picture the book draws. Next, the authors’ conclusions are far from being of speculative character. Chapter discussions stem from empirical research, with plenty of seminal and current sources cited. This solid research basis maintains the reader’s confidence in the validity of the authors’ reasoning. Thus, the book may be a valuable source for applied linguistics students and scholars looking for existing knowledge about the role of nonverbal signals in a target language communication. Language scholars would likely appreciate the breadth of the reference section as well as the comprehensiveness of the author index and the subject index. Finally, the book contains a myriad of resources ranging from text-based sample outlines of classroom activities to video-based illustrations of (and beyond) those activities. They will be appreciated by both second language in-practice teachers and learners. As ready-to-go pedagogical tools, these resources can be painlessly integrated into real classroom practices. Although the activities were designed originally for English learners, the design of the classroom techniques can be easily upgraded, altered, or enhanced if demanded by a particular language teaching context.

It is not an easy feat to pose criticisms of this book because the authors left little room for improvement. It can be mentioned that the book contains a small number of typos. The quality of photos of nonverbal signals interspersed in the text could also have been much higher. Most of the photos were not shot professionally in terms of lighting and aberrations, which does a slight disservice to the authors. Next, while the authors’ reasoning throughout the first two parts has a demonstrated solid research basis, there are few indicators of validity presented for the techniques and activities in Part 3 of the book. It is stated that some of the activities were adopted from external resources. For the most part, however, the reader does not know whether these activities were peer-reviewed and how many revisions they have undergone. Having this information would add credibility to Part 3 of the book. Finally, the book would benefit from having suggested reading lists after each part and/or chapter of the book. These expert-informed suggestions would further navigate novice readers in the existing literature pertaining to the role of non-verbal signals in the target language communication.


Ekman, P. & Freisen, W. V. (1969). The repertoire of nonverbal behavior: Categories, origins, usage, and coding. Semiotica, 1, 49-98.

Vigotsky, L. S. (1987). Thinking and speech. In R. W. Rieber and A. S. Carton (eds). The Collected Works of L. S. Vygotsky, Volume 1: Problems of General Psychology (pp. 39-285). New York: Plenum Press.


Roman Lesnov is a Ph.D. candidate at Northern Arizona University, USA. His research interests include second language assessment and statistical methods in applied linguistics.

Page Updated: 12-Dec-2017